On April 6, 1998, Sonia Gandhi was unanimously elected the Congress president. The intervening 12 years have seen huge changes. In Gandhi herself and in the way we see her.
Soon after taking over the Congress presidency, Gandhi visited, Mumbai. Murli Deora, then the head of the state Congress, hosted a lunch to introduce her to the media and prominent people. With her was Manmohan Singh. When she sat down for lunch and was asked a question about politics, her response was to look at Singh and say, “Manmohanji aap hi boliye.” The diffident manner may still be much in evidence, but the diffidence itself has long since gone. Gandhi’s unsure outward manner, in fact, hides a remarkable metamorphosis, one through which a simple, uncomplicated homemaker unfamiliar with India’s intricate social structure and its complex political nuances of caste and region, has become adept at handling them with consummate ease.
This personal transformation has taken place undeterred by the hostility she faced from the chattering classes. It’s difficult to imagine that just 12 years ago, a vast majority of India’s educated elite disliked the very idea of Sonia Gandhi. They resented the fact that a foreigner was elevated to such an important post, sniggered at her unimpressive academic qualifications and mocked her political naiveté. Many of those critics have now become admirers, others converts to her cause.
If she weathered this disparagement it was because Gandhi’s instincts must have told her that their disapproval didn’t matter. What mattered was the affection with which the poor of India welcomed her, evident in the ‘huge’ or ‘frenzied’ or ‘rousing’ election rallies.
Why was there such a diametrically opposite response to one individual? The poor of India weren’t put off by her foreign identity because they saw that she had embraced an Indian one: in clothes, in deportment, in language and in family values.
Why did India’s upper classes take a dozen years see what the poor and illiterate masses saw instinctively? There is a simple explanation for it, so simple in fact that we may be tempted to reject it. That explanation is this: the educated elite has over the years become cynical.
So cynical, in fact, that it fails to see the possibility of good in others. Not good as in good, better, best which it understands, but good as in morally right and virtuous, as in a person of noble character, which its cynicism won’t allow it to accept.
This is the reason why the educated elite was unable to comprehend Gandhi’s turning down of the prime ministership in 2004. They invented ‘reasons’ for her refusal: that the president advised her to do so because there would be constitutional objections to her foreign origins (Rashtrapati Bhavan denied this). Some said she was afraid for her life, a ridiculous statement when you considered the openness of her election campaign.
The ‘inner voice’ she referred to had advised her earlier too: first when she refused the Congress presidency which came as an emotional response to Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in 1991, and seven years later in 1998 when she relented and accepted the job reluctantly. The cynicism of the chatterati made them think she did so because of ambition; what they were unable to see is that she did so from a sense of duty to save the Congress from the oblivion it was hurtling to under the ‘leadership’ of the likes of Sitaram Kesri and Arjun Singh, Sharad Pawar and N.D. Tiwari. That sense of duty, born of being a part of the Nehru-Gandhi family from the age of 24, was so strong that it overrode her shyness and the horror of living through the assassinations of Indira and Rajiv.
That sense of duty to the Congress and the nation now also drives Gandhi’s aggressive pursuit of social legislation: against poverty (National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and farm debt waiver), against corruption (Right to Information Act), against gender inequality (Women’s Bill). This continues the tradition of legislation brought in by the Nehru-Gandhi family: Jawaharlal Nehru’s ‘temples of modern India’ and ‘commanding heights’ of socialism, Indira Gandhi’s abolition of privy purses and bank nationalisation, Rajiv Gandhi’s panchayati raj and communication network to rural and small town India. In retrospect, not all these ideas stand the test of time, but their intention was always for the greater good of the majority. In short, the intention was always — and there’s that word again — noble.
It takes some effort to use that word. It probably makes some of you cringe to read it. But when you think about it, the fact that it lacks currency in today’s world is a sad reflection on our times and the people who occupy our public space. If Sonia Gandhi and her steadfast ally Manmohan Singh restore it and give it back to us so we can use it without self-consciousness, they will have given to our national life something far greater than all the bills and legislations put together. But they need us to meet them half away; they need us to let go of our deep-seated cynicism.
Anil Dharker is a Mumbai-based writer. The views expressed by the author are personal.